Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Linndale sues, holds mayors court one last time

{Updated, 3/27; see bottom of post.} 

A guy walked into Linndale’s tiny courtroom today, threw himself onto a seat, and held his head in his hands. His hair was uncombed, his stubble days-long, as if he’d almost slept through his 3:30 pm court date.

He contemplated the crumpled court papers in his hand and shook his head. He may have been one of Linndale’s last defendants ever. But if he knew that, it wasn’t consoling him.

The Linndale mayor’s court held an unusual Tuesday session today, blitzing through two weeks’ worth of scofflaws while it still could. On Friday,* a new state law makes mayor’s courts illegal in towns with less than 201 people.

Linndale, official population 179, is fighting back. The microvillage and operator of I-71’s most famous speed trap is suing to try to stop the law. A hearing on the challenge is set for tomorrow afternoon in Columbus.

Meanwhile, mayor’s court magistrate George Sadd conducted court today as he always has, with a quirky cheerfulness that reflects the ambience of Northeast Ohio’s quirkiest town.

A defendant rose, holding his year-old daughter. Dressed in pink, she hung onto her father’s shoulder and his black coat’s furry hood.

“You wanna talk?” Sadd asked her. “Wanna be his lawyer? Did he say he was guilty?”

Actually, Dad pled not guilty. He was cited for speeding while driving a ’91 Nissan. He actually drives a ’95 Ford Escort. Sadd dismissed his case.

The last few defendants sagged in their seats, wearing glum, chastened, about-to-be-fined looks.

“You should be very happy today,” Sadd told them. “This is the last day of winter!”

Tomorrow, the first day of spring, is also D-Day for Linndale.* TV news vans will likely descend on the town’s eight streets, driving a careful 25 mph, waiting to see if the new law will actually end the village’s 46-year-old speed trap.

Sadd turned to Mike Toczek, the clerk of courts and the town’s top civilian employee. “Mike, don’t let anybody rile you tomorrow,” he counseled. “Just answer questions to the best of your ability.”

Soon, Sadd saw my notebook and realized the media onslaught had already begun. While he waited for one last defendant’s lawyer to arrive, he started chatting.

“This is a good court,” Sadd told me. “I’m very good with the plea bargains here, trying to help everybody out.”

Linndale issues traffic tickets at a fantastic rate: about 2,700 annually per 100 residents, by far the highest ratio in Ohio. And the rate might even be higher than reported.

My 2011 article, “Greetings From Linndale,” co-written with Mark DeMarino, found strange discrepancies in Linndale’s official 2010 census count of 179: a block that's not really in Linndale, a block where phantom residents supposedly moved into an industrial zone, and a block that officially doubled in population but didn't have nearly that many people a year later. We also found that police went door-to-door, encouraging people to fill out census forms, a practice the Census Bureau said was inappropriate and could intimidate people.

The new law’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Patton, has argued that Linndale issues tickets disproportionately to fund the town budget. Sadd disagrees.

“What does the number of people in the village have to do with enforcement of traffic laws?” he asked. “Trained police officers issue tickets on highways. The residents sit at home and watch TV.”

Sadd heard 40 defendants’ cases today; 93 more have a court date on March 27. Will the court be open then, despite the law?

Yes,” Sadd insisted. He invited me to come back. “We’ll have tea and doughnuts for you.”

*Update, 3/20: A judge has denied Linndale's request for a preliminary injunction, so the law is set to go into effect on Friday.

(The Ohio Supreme Court ordered Linndale and other tiny mayor's courts to cease operation as of March 20, which is 90 days after the governor signed the bill. But the law actually takes effect on the 22nd, 90 full days after it was filed with the Secretary of State.)

Update, 3/27: Linndale has won a stay of the mayor's court law pending an appeal. The tiny towns' lawyers and the state attorney general's office will face off at the appeals court this summer.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Justice Department investigating Cleveland police

The debate over the Nov. 29 police chase and shooting got bigger today. A top civil rights lawyer for the Justice Department, with Mayor Frank Jackson at his side, announced an investigation into whether the Cleveland police have engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force.

It’s not a criminal investigation, but it could result in the federal government asking or demanding reforms in the police department. It’s not just about the November shooting, but that’s definitely part of it.

“We initiated our investigation after a careful, considered review process that spanned police activity over a number of years,” said Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, at a morning press conference. U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach confirmed that the Nov. 29 shooting was part of the feds’ review.

Dettelbach said the preliminary inquiry was launched last year in response to requests from the mayor, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, the NAACP, and local clergy. Those requests all came in December. Some specifically asked the feds to investigate the Nov. 29 shooting.

The announcement reframes the debate about Cleveland police’s use of force: It’s not just about one chase on one night, but a possible pattern. Dettelbach confirmed today that his office is still investigating the police use of force against Ernest Henderson after a high-speed chase in January 2011. (For a roundup of several recent allegations of excessive force in Cleveland, including the Henderson case, see this Plain Dealer article.)

Jackson’s presence at the press conference may also get the town beyond the debate it got stuck in last month, over whether the Nov. 29 chase was a “systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department.” Mike DeWine, the state attorney general, said it was. Police chief Michael McGrath disagreed. Jackson left the question open. (See my new profile of Jackson for more on this.)

“[If] we need to do better in areas, then we will gladly change,” Jackson said today.

But I doubt that means the chief’s head on a platter, as some critics demanded last month. Jackson said today that he, McGrath and safety director Martin Flask have worked on maintaining trust between citizens and police for “all the time that I have been mayor, this chief has been chief, [and] this director has been director.”

Jackson values loyalty, and it sounds like he still views McGrath and Flask as loyal subordinates who are willing to go as far as he wants to change the department. That means the questions rebound on Jackson too. Has he done enough to discourage excessive force? And if no, what more must he do?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Mayor’s next challenges: Between the lines at the State of the City

Mayor Frank Jackson’s State of the City talk today felt very friendly, a polite discourse replacing a long checklist speech. But if you listened carefully -- to the questions Jackson answered and the questions he didn’t -- you could hear hints of several big challenges the mayor has to tackle this year and beyond:

Vacant homes. “Fifteen thousand abandoned houses in Cleveland. The city is tearing down 2,000 a year,” TV anchor Leon Bibb said. “Can you increase that rate?”

Great question, one of Bibb’s most pointed of the day. And more important than maybe he knew. City Hall actually tore down only 728 vacant homes last year, down from a peak of 1,708 in 2009. Homeowners and the county land bank demolish the rest.

“We cannot afford to address all of what we need to address,” Jackson replied. “In six years, we’ve spent over $50 million, and we still have this problem.”

He’s right -- the problem is too big for the city to tackle alone. That’s why local congresspeople are trying to pass a bill to use federal money to demolish homes in Cleveland and other foreclosure-torn cities. But Jackson didn’t mention their effort.

Instead, he nodded toward councilman Jeff Johnson’s argument for demolishing fewer homes and preserving more -- without endorsing it. In the end, he said, “I believe Cleveland will be in a much better position to take that abandoned property that now has become vacant land and develop some redevelopment of Cleveland’s neighborhoods.” OK, but to go from abandoned home to vacant land, you need to tear stuff down!

The waterfront. Bibb asked what the city’s doing to better develop the riverfront and lakeshore. Jackson touted the Flats East Bank project, then said his waterfront task force is drafting a request for qualifications from developers interested in building along North Coast Harbor. The city’s Twitter feed sang backup –

Spring? This is taking a while. In a December interview, the mayor told me he expected the task force to deliver him a draft by January.

Jackson’s playing catch-up here – he lost four years of opportunity at the waterfront on a scuttled plan to move the port. While reporting my new profile of Jackson, I heard from Clevelanders who asked why he isn’t tackling the waterfront project with some of the urgency he applied to the schools.

“Developers actually see this as an opportunity,” Jackson told Bibb, “and I believe developers will come forward.” Let’s hope so.

The port. “The port authority levy went down,” Bibb noted. “What happens now with the port?” Good question. But then Bibb stepped on it by bringing up the waterfront plan again. Jackson responded to the second question but dodged the first.

The port’s future is a fair question to ask Jackson, who appoints six of the port board’s nine members. The November levy request would’ve addressed a big wish list on the lakefront and waterfront, including a pedestrian bridge from downtown to North Coast Harbor and a plan to shore up the eroding Irishtown Bend. Jackson and Ed FitzGerald’s administrations teamed up to write the wish list, but neither campaigned for the levy beyond putting their names on mass mailings.

Now it looks like the port will return to voters this year with a modest request for a renewal levy, not an increase. Which of those projects on the wish list will it still take on? And how will they be paid for?

The police shooting. Bibb politely asked Jackson for his thoughts on the November police chase and shooting, and Jackson again said he won’t make judgments until the city’s investigation is complete. He repeated his “inside the box, outside the box” metaphor, about whether officers followed the city’s policies and procedures.

“If people are within the box, and they’ve conducted themselves appropriately, they don’t have anything to worry about. If they have not, they do have something to worry about,” Jackson said. “It depends on how far outside and how severe [their] actions were.” Fair enough. But the attorney general says 60 police officers went “outside the box” to join a high-speed chase without permission. Will the mayor punish them all?

The schools. Bibb asked the mayor how to get more parental involvement in the schools. This is a polite way of bringing up the most cynical, sweeping critique of the mayor’s school reforms, the argument that no reforms will work if parents don’t parent.

Encouraging more involvement is part of the plan, Jackson said. But he also argued that more parents will get involved if they see the schools get better. “People have to believe things are relevant to them,” he said. “As we become more successful, I believe that will lead to greater participation.” He challenged parents and others to insist on better schools and a broader effort by business to help them improve. “The community should hold the public and private sector to a much higher level of expectation than they do now.”

Later, a retired teacher held Jackson accountable, asking him how the district will attract talented teachers if they may face classes with more than 40 or 50 students. Jackson partially dodged this one. “You mentioned 50-something kids in one class,” he replied. “I could probably tell you about another with less than 20.”

But Cleveland does have outrageous class sizes. Grades 4 through 12 average 40 to 41 students per class, schools CEO Eric Gordon told me this fall. (Grades K through 3 are OK, at 20 to 23.) Getting class sizes under control was a major argument for passing the school levy. Will Jackson and Gordon get it done?